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How 'box canyon' became the go-to metaphor for lost political causes

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) Pamphlets, stickers and flags for Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas sit on a table during a campaign stop in Rockwell City, Iowa, on Monday. One GOP Senate critics charges that Cruz's combative positions are leading the GOP into a no-win 'box canyon.'

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“Box canyon.” A Wild West metaphor, it describes a political situation from which you can’t easily extricate yourself and are vulnerable to attack.

Politicians and political observers love Western movies, which probably helps explain this phrase’s increasing popularity. They feature clear-cut good guys and bad guys and thrilling situations that don’t lend themselves to ambiguity.

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Writing about the upheaval in the House over who should succeed outgoing Speaker John Boehner, Forbes contributor Ralph Benko suggested that, if Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan decides against a bid, Republicans turn to one of two Lone Star State lawmakers: Jeb Hensarling or Kevin Brady. “When you find yourself in a box canyon,” Benko wrote, “you would be smart to turn to a Texan to guide you out.”

A few weeks before all of this tumult ensued, George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder, who also is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, analyzed the motivations of the Freedom Caucus, the ultra-conservative House members who were central in majority leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to run for speaker. Binder wrote that its members’ strategy of holding government funding hostage to defunding the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and Planned Parenthood “makes perfect sense for a House member playing to his or her partisan base rather than to the broader public.”

She added: “Conservative Republicans could see such past episodes as political successes even if the party brand name took a beating at the time. GOP electoral gains in 2014 surely reinforce such positive perceptions. Heading down into the box canyon – not getting out – is the whole point.”  

Before jumping into the 2016 presidential race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz already had drawn plenty of criticism for his central role in the 2013 government shutdown over the defunding Obamacare. His Senate GOP colleague Bob Corker of Tennessee, in a sharp poke at Cruz’s Ivy League credentials, said before the shutdown: “I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count – the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position.”

A year later, Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman cited the unpopularity of Cruz’s conservative stances with Hispanics and other minority groups to ask whether the candidate had “the wherewithal to stampede the entire GOP into a demographic box canyon.”

But it isn’t always Republicans who get tagged with the metaphor. In the Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colo., Richard Berman of the conservative Center for Union Facts contended that the Employee Rights Act – a bill that would that would make it harder for unions to win organizing campaigns – “has pushed Democrats into a policy box canyon where they can't run or hide. When they try to shoot their way out of supporting this popular policy, the public will recognize who's wearing the black hats.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.